A young researcher turns any surface to a touch screen

Published online 29 December 2011

Mohammed Yahia

Haitham Desouky
Haitham Desouky
Nature Middle East

The Stars of Science is one of the Arab world's premiere innovation competitions. Over 7,000 applicants are whittled down to just 30, who went to present their innovative idea to a panel of scientists in Qatar.

Nature Middle East spoke to Haitham Desouky, a 26-year-old engineer from Nile University, who won this year's Stars of Science, about his invention, his research in Egypt and the precarious position of Nile University.

Tell us about your invention?

It is basically a sticker that you can attach below any solid surface to turn it into a touch screen. The sticker has a frequency around it. Most surfaces can act as a conductor, even wood, but it is a poor conductor. When you touch the surface, your own electrical field travels through the surface and down to the sticker itself, affecting its frequency.

The closest example to this is a radio's antenna. When you move your hand close to it and even before touching it, you'll find the frequency changes, the signal could become better or worse.

The sticker is wirelessly connected to a control point, which can be attached to anything, such as a lighting system or another computer to give it orders.

I ran tiny 10 microns gold wires through a transparent sticker. I also had to create a special machine to pass these wires through the transparent sticker. This machine is wired-up to a computer that controls the design of wire plates

The applications are endless. For example, you can stick it below a restaurant menu and you can just touch the image of the item you want and the order is sent wirelessly to the kitchen. You could have a slider to select how spicy you want your meal or to tell the chef how much you liked, or even disliked, the meal. It could even be possible for patrons to play games on the menu as they wait for their food.

The competition involved several challenges. For instance, I had one week to to attach the sticker to clothes, which had to be washable without the need to recharge the sticker. Another challenge was to use the sticker to replace the buttons in a bathroom so you can just touch on a surface to turn on the light, open the tap, or change the temperature. This would make the bathroom a safer place by replacing standard electric switches that can be hazardous if in contact with water.

Is this based on something already available?

We cannot let events taking place in Egypt affect research. The whole world is moving and we cannot stop or we will be left behind.

No invention is completely new or isolated. The idea is novel, but it is based on another project t I worked on in which I wanted to create a computer mouse that is wearable as a ring and can work without touching a surface. I had to develop new technologies for the mouse, which I figured could be used to create these touch screens.

I have been working on this sticker for the past four years. In the beginning the circuit was very big and the frequency was quite noisy. You would touch one plate but affect an adjacent one and it was easily affected by the frequency from any adjacent bodies. Over the four years I managed to iron out all these problems and make it accurate.

Through the competition, I was able to take it from the design phase to the business phase. Stars of Science is more than a competition; it is a learning experience. You learn all the different stages you need to go through to turn an idea born in the lab to an actual product on the market, and the help of experts from all over the world.

Who was funding your work over those four years of research?

At first my research was being funded by Azhar University in Cairo, but the research was quite expensive.

When Tarek Khalil [president of Nile University], heard of my previous research, he approached me and offered me a place at Nile University. This happened when I was still an undergraduate student in my fourth year at university.

Nile University gave me a fully equipped lab and some of the professors and experts there helped me. They even offered me a salary while I was still a student. I will start a masters degree next year, since I've been so busy this year with the competition.

Are the current problems facing Nile University affecting your work and research?

Of course, these events have greatly delayed my work. I already had a lab but it was in our new campus in October City. After the revolution this campus was re-allocated to the Zewail City of Science and Technology. Since the competition, the university has given me a different lab and I'm in the process of transferring my equipment there. As soon as that is done I'll be able to return to my work.

I hope this is only temporary though. We are all struggling to get our campus back or at least get a stable, equal alternative to it. A situation where you are always worried your university might close down is not the best atmosphere to conduct research.

We cannot let events taking place in Egypt affect research. The whole world is moving and we cannot stop or we will be left behind. Even when Japan had its nuclear disaster it didn't stop research. We need to rise up to the challenge and prove that we can conduct research and innovate even through these tough times.